Page last updated at 03:08 GMT, Tuesday, 10 June 2008 04:08 UK

Witnesses describe Zimbabwe violence

By Caroline Hawley
BBC News, Johannesburg

Anna Satiya, 84, shows an injury sustained during an attack by suspected Zanu-PF supporters, in Gutu, south of Harare, 22 April 2008
Violence spread shortly after the 29 March election

As the date for Zimbabwe's presidential run-off approaches, state-sponsored violence has escalated sharply, according to human rights workers and opposition politicians in Zimbabwe who have given first-hand accounts to the BBC.

Andrew Makoni and Harrison Nkomo, both young human rights lawyers, fled to the safety of South Africa last week, fearing for their lives.

Five of Mr Makoni's clients, all activists for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have been murdered over the past few weeks.

He says three of them had their eyes gouged out, and their tongues cut off.

'Systematic campaign'

"I had threats last year, and was incarcerated for my work, and I stayed in the country," he said, speaking at a small unfinished hotel in Johannesburg where he is now staying.

"But this time we have to take the threats seriously because there seems to be a systematic campaign to eliminate those with opposing views.

There are horrific injuries. Bones are not just fractured, they are shattered
Human rights worker

"People are being abducted and their decomposing bodies are being found."

Mr Nkomo said: "I received credible information that I was on a list of lawyers who are being targeted by state security agents for elimination. It seems they want to remove anyone seen to be standing in their way."

Hospitals in Harare have been kept busy dealing with an endless flow of bloodied and bruised patients, who have been subjected to brutal beatings.

"The violence we're seeing is more life-threatening than it was," said one human rights worker, who did not want to be identified.

"There are horrific injuries. Bones are not just fractured, they are shattered. Victims speak of being handcuffed and then beaten."

Petrol bombs

The violence is worst in rural areas - where the MDC did well in the 29 March election, at the expense of the ruling Zanu-PF.

"There are hit squads operating, and the level of attacks is increasing," Misheck Marava, an MDC senator from south-eastern Zimbabwe, told the BBC by telephone.

Mr Marava represents the town of Zaka where, last week, an MDC office was attacked with gunfire and petrol bombs leaving charred bodies in the wreckage, according to the opposition.

"My homestead has been attacked three times," he said.

"My wife was beaten and the husband of one of our councillor's was shot and had his ribs broken. It's very, very bad."

Morgan Tsvangirai campaigning on a bus near Bulawayo, 7 June 2008
Morgan Tsvangirai is still campaigning, but his supporters have been targeted

He also said the government's suspension of the work of aid agencies would have a terrible effect in his district: "We are now at the mercy of God."

Aid groups believe that their field work has been banned in part to prevent them witnessing government abuses.

"We are the eyes and ears of the international community," one foreign aid worker told the BBC.

"And it's clear that the authorities don't want us out in the countryside seeing what they're going to do."

In one of the worst attacks, Human Rights Watch says six men were beaten to death in Chiweshe in Mashonaland Central province on 5 May - at a "re-education" meeting meant to compel MDC supporters to vote for Robert Mugabe in the presidential run-off.

It reports that another 70 men and women were tortured, including a 76-year old woman who was thrashed in front of assembled villagers.

Retaliatory attacks

Although the government blames the MDC for the violence, all independent reports suggest that the vast bulk of attacks are being carried out by state security organs, as well as Zanu-PF militia.

No-one in the area had the courage to help him - they were too scared
Blessing Chebundo, MDC MP

But human rights workers in Zimbabwe say it is not wholly one-sided.

"We're starting to hear stories about resistance being organised and retaliatory attacks," one told the BBC.

"A couple of Zanu-PF supporters were hospitalised after the Chiweshe incident."

Human Rights Watch says it has now confirmed at least 2,000 victims of violence - and that may be a conservative figure.

"Fear is being instilled in people to such an extent that they're running away to urban areas," says Blessing Chebundo, MP for KweKwe in the centre of the country.

"Zanu-PF youth militia and army men are forcing people to put on Zanu-PF T-shirts and they're confiscating the ID cards of people they think are MDC supporters so they won't be able to vote."

He described how, after a Zanu-PF rally last Friday, government supporters went on the rampage, killing an MDC supporter.

"No-one in the area had the courage to help him - they were too scared," he said.

A human rights activist inside Zimbabwe said: "Almost everyone you talk to seems to have a story of intimidation. People are being threatened and told they must vote 'correctly.'"

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